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Wearing brand new sneakers covered in human poo, standing at the top of a hill overlooking Africa’s biggest slum, I first asked myself a question that took almost 20 years to answer: “How uncomfortable do I have to get with things before I actually change my life?”
It was 2004 and a couple of actors had flown me to Nairobi to teach them yoga during a film shoot. While there we toured the Kibera slum, where almost a million humans live squeezed together into little tin-roofed shacks. We climbed on dirt roads paved with plastic grocery bags to the top of a hill at its center so we could see it all. On both sides of us ran deep open channels of raw, very fresh sewage flowing downward.
A week earlier, I’d bought some expensive, bright red, high tech, super lightweight Nike sneakers back home at the Fred Segal store in Santa Monica- a temple to buying expensive things nobody actually needs. Walking up that road of flowing feces I pondered how wearing them there felt like another example of the impracticality of my life choices, and it felt rude.
The visual I remember most about that day is me looking down at my dumb shoes to see how much well-deserved shit slurry I’d gotten on them- then getting mad at myself for caring.
But it was our guide who said the words I remember most about that day, after we got to the top of the hill, my shoes now beyond hope, embarrassed at how stupid and selfish I looked.
Now while most of the shacks were without plumbing, electricity, windows, or doors, and while There was shit and garbage everywhere, the air was filled with the very happy sounds of lots of little groups of children playing. They were everywhere we looked- kids of different ages taking care of each other. They played soccer with homemade balls made of tightly bound plastic bags. And they were laughing so much!
That wasn’t what I expected in a place where everybody has nothing.
So at the top of the hill I told our local guide how blown away I was at how much more happy everybody seemed that the place where I lived in LA- that the people there don’t see each other, they don’t talk to each other, they compete with each other over everything, and run each other over in their big cars because they don’t realize that there are pedestrians nearby. I told him that the thing that is most important back home is how much money we have, and the thing that is second most important is how much money other people think we have.
And he said to me, “then why don’t you move here? We would love to have you”
And he waited. He knew what he’d said. After a pause, we both laughed nervously. That’s when I started asking myself – why was I working so hard to participate in a world that so clearly prioritizes things in a way that doesn’t feel human to me? And why do any of us do that? I sure didn’t know.
When I contrasted the kind of connection I felt at home with the love I saw in the slum, I was, honestly, horrified. But I went home anyway. The actors won awards for the jobs they did. I made a lot more money and spent it on even bigger mistakes than the red shoes. Bought my own suv. Got a place on the beach. Students all over the world. Envy.
And, predictably, misery. As I earned more, I grew more miserable. And more miserable. And then finally I became miserable enough to remember and finally believe, and finally act upon what my heart told me in Kenya. You don’t need all this. You don’t need all this. Then I left it. Finally.
Why didn’t I listen the first time? Why don’t you? Why do any of us do what we do when our hearts tell us that things aren’t ok?
I started to learn that day in Kenya that familiarity tends to be far more attractive to humans than the prospect of beneficial change is. Sometimes before change can happen, we have to become as familiar with the possibilities on the other side of that change as we are with the thing that needs changing. And That takes time.
No- Even after you’ve identified a change you want to make, you might not yet be ready to do it.
You might not be miserable enough yet. You might not know how yet. Maybe it’s more important for you to take care of other people right now and maybe that is okay for right now. But planting the seed is valuable and important, and it’s ok if that’s all you can do for now. That day in Kenya, it was all those things that sent me back home to the same old same old.
But the heart is as persistent as it is wise. You can try to shush it and you can try to ignore it but it won’t ever stop knowing the real truth about you and us and all of this, and it won’t stop trying to tell you what you need to hear. Listening to your heart can work miracles- maybe that’s where all miracles come from. But sometimes it just takes a while for the head to come along and get the thing done.